Music in the Society for Creative Anachronism

(Copyright © Heather M. Dale, 1996)


I have had the opportunity to do fieldwork within an extensive, yet relatively invisible, sub-culture of Western society: a medieval re-creation group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). In the 30 years since its inception in California, the SCA has developed its own customs, laws, history, heroes, geography, legends and other cultural structures, many of which are transmitted temporally and spatially by a strong oral tradition. This paper will examine the role of music within the SCA, based on my fieldwork in the SCA geographic and cultural entity called the Principality of Ealdormere.

I have done three years of basic fieldwork within the SCA, almost exclusively within Ealdormere. In the course of my ethnomusicological study, I feel that I have gained a working understanding of the Principality’s culture, and the importance of its music. I will begin by providing a brief and necessarily inadequate description of the SCA’s cultural structures for the benefit of the reader, and will then analyze the role of music within them.

Cultural Background

The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA or the Society) is a worldwide re-creation organization, dedicated to the creative revival of the cultures, technology, combat techniques, arts and sciences of the Dark Ages, Middle Ages and Renaissance (often collectively referred to as "medieval"). Its members research and recreate favourable aspects of Western European cultures from circa 600AD to 1600AD , and also of societies that had contact with Western Europe during this period. Middle Eastern, Mongolian, Russian, and Japanese cultures are commonly accepted as being in the latter category, whether or not contact is historically supportable during any given era.

The SCA differs from historical reenactment groups like the more commonly known Civil War Battalions in that it does not enforce authenticity; rather, existing documentation is used as a guide, which members use according to their available resources, interest level and practical modern economic considerations.

But the re-creation of physical objects is only a part of the Society; its non-tangible aspects are what set the SCA apart from other organizations and allow me to categorize it as a sub-culture. There is a perceptual differentiation between the real modern world (referred to as the Mundane world), and the world of the Society (often called the Dream). Each Society member adopts the geographical, historical/legendary and behavioural conventions of the SCA when attending SCA events, and these cultural elements are distinct from both modern and documentably medieval ones. The SCA blends the real world and its own constructed world, and Society members instinctively recognize both as valid frames of reference for their activities.

The SCA overlays different names and boundaries over the world’s conventional geography. These divisions do not necessarily correspond to medieval or modern political divisions, and they are continually evolving as the Society spreads outwards from California, establishing new administrative and cultural territories. The largest divisions of the world (Kingdoms and Principalities) are headed by Royalty who perform ceremonial functions, primarily holding formal courts in which they give out awards of merit to active SCA participants.

All SCA members use a medievally documentable name within the context of the Society. Many members develop a first-person persona or character for SCA events, and this persona serves as a focus for their historical research and re-creation. All members wear a reasonable attempt at pre-17th century clothing when at events, and generally behave more courteously towards each other than is prevalent in modern Western society.


Music in the SCA

An examination of music within the Society is probably best served by generalizing from what I have come across in my fieldwork in Ealdormere, with the assumption that it is basically representative for the rest of the SCA. It should be noted, however, that the Principality of Ealdormere has a world-wide reputation for its tradition of having active musical performers, many of whom act as praise-singers for the Principality and its populace.

Music serves the purposes of entertainment, re-creation and education within the Society. Both original and period pieces are played or sung at events for the enjoyment of the other participants. Original music composed by SCA members often furthers the oral history of the Society by recording and glorifying the deeds and qualities of prominent gentles, as well as developing ‘national identities’ and forging ties between various geographical entities.

The Society recognizes the validity both instrumental and vocal music, using period and certain non-period instruments or styles, but vocal music is more popular and much more commonly performed than instrumental music. The relative scarcity of purely instrumental music may be attributed to the cost and difficulty of acquiring and playing instruments.

Solo and ensemble music exists, as does vocal music with accompaniment. Interestingly, the term "the bardic arts" is often used to describe musical expression which contributes to the oral history of the Society, and includes spoken poetry, though usually not instrumental music or strict re-creations of Early Music. The term "bard" is also usually reserved for vocal performers. Exclusively instrumental musicians may be afforded an added degree of prestige due to their technical skills, but usually have less widespread popularity than bards. This stems from the Society’s "ability-oriented" hierarchical structure, which requires a brief explanation.

Though the names of hereditary medieval upper classes are used to describe different ranks in the Society’s hierarchy (i.e. Prince, Squire, Baron, Lady, etc.), the means of gaining status in the SCA is the demonstration of ability within the framework of egalitarian opportunities. For example, Royalty earn their rank by winning a special combat tournament, SCA members who are experts in a period art or science are inducted into the prestigious Order of the Laurel, and people are given awards based on their re-creative accomplishments or support of the SCA culture. Similarly, musicians can gain informal status and popularity through frequent and proficient performances, and those which have consistently demonstrated their skill may become known as bards.

The performance of actual period music is respected for the technical and academic effort involved, but the majority of the SCA’s music is post-period or original work. This is due to the inaccessibility of period music, in terms of its physical rarity, technical requirements and limited appeal to modern audiences. There is a nebulous line between what is acceptable post-period and original music, and what is frowned upon as being intrusive to the medieval atmosphere. The specific classifications depend on regional character, social context and to some extent the reputation of the performer.

Much of the Society’s music is transmitted orally via live or recorded performance, without musical notation. In fact, many SCA performers cannot read or write musical notation. SCA performers are rarely professional musicians in their real lives, and they are not reimbursed for their musical activities within the SCA. A few performers will put out a hat for volontary donations, but this is not the norm. Cassette tapes produced by SCA performers are often sold for considerably less than their market value, in order to make the music more widely accessible.


The majority of instrumental music is used to accompany medieval dancing, and it appears to include a much higher percentage of period material than vocal music. Possibly the serious musicians who devote the effort to achieving technical proficiency on an instrument may have greater access to (or interest in) period music. Instrumentalists often perform together in small ensembles, though soloists are common due to the difficulties of bringing the often far-flung instrumental musicians together. Many vocalists will accompany themselves on period or acceptably non-period instruments.

Any documentably period instrument is acceptable in a Society context, and these instruments are highly prized due to their rarity. The best sources for them are craftspeople within the Society, though many SCA musicians attempt to make their own based on their own or someone else’s re-creative research. Common examples include harps, drums (usually Irish or Middle Eastern), and recorders/flutes. Several Ealdormerean musicians play notably unusual period instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy (played by Lady Elspeth of Eoforwic), the mandora (handmade by Lord Garwig der Waffenschmidt), and the hammered dulcimer (Lady Marian of Heatherdale).

Certain non-period instruments are deemed acceptable for SCA performances, especially when used as accompaniment for voices. These are nearly all acoustic folk instruments, like guitars and violins, many of which had earlier period forms. Notable examples include Lord Justinian Clarus, who accompanies himself on a mandolin, and Lord Halfdan Blackanvil’s bagpipe performances. Modern electric instruments are deemed unacceptable for performance at events, though they may be tolerated for SCA-related recorded music (for example, Lady Marian of Heatherdale uses a synthesizer keyboard).


Period vocal music is performed by soloists and choral groups, though the majority of solo performers (hereafter termed bards) sing post-period, filk or original work. The repertoires of choral ensembles generally have a greater period and post-period percentage than do soloists, with little original material.

Basic criteria for acceptable post-period music are: 1) Western cultural source, 2) no references to blatantly modern things, and 3) not in a 20th century musical style, with the very notable exception of folk music. Folk music which conforms to the first two criteria is widely accepted, especially Irish folk. To give the reader a sense of what is acceptable folk music, a few examples that I have heard performed include: Gypsy Rover (traditional Irish), Glenwhorple (traditional Scottish), and Barrett’s Privateers (Stan Rogers, Canadian).

Acceptable originally-composed music follows the same criteria, with the exception that references to modern Society people, practices and history are not only acceptable but encouraged. The bulk of the SCA’s culture is transmitted through non-written means, and music plays an important part in educating members about the cherished values (usually through praise-singing) and oral history of the Society. Not all original work has SCA-related content, though most incorporates some connection to the actual or idealized medieval era.

Another generally accepted non-period musical form is "filk", a type of folk music which combines existing melodies with original and often humourous lyrics. Other social groups use this genre to interpret their culture with music, notably the fans of science fiction and fantasy literature. Many people feel that the performance of well-known modern melodies is intrusive to the SCA’s medieval atmosphere, but the acceptance of filk often depends on the specifics of the piece, the social context, and the performer’s reputation. A piece is more likely to be frowned upon if the melody is easily associated with a modern context or is of a blatantly modern style; for example Lord Sigurd Leothsanga’s "Daddy Takes The Warhorse Away" (to the tune of "Fun Fun Fun" by the Beach Boys). However, many filk songs that could bring disapproval in the context of a formal SCA event are perfectly acceptable at informal gatherings such as parties or Bardic Circles (i.e. egalitarian and inclusive musical parties, much like campfire sing-alongs). Exceptions may also be allowed due to the popular status of the performer, as in the notable case of Lord Sigurd, a well-respected Ealdormerean bard whose main repertoire is humorous filk music.


The Society for Creative Anachronism’s complex culture is reflected in its many different forms of musical expression. Its musical performers gain their status or popularity depending upon their musical ability and the frequency of their performances. This is indicative of the Society’s general rule of providing equal opportunities for its participants, but allowing its members to be recognized according to their efforts. Music serves the dual purposes of the Society: re-creating aspects of the actual or ideal medieval period, and contributing to the Society’s growing and unique culture.



Bard: 1) (n.) Honourary office bestowed by the Principality Royalty, to a performer who will sing the praises of Ealdormere during the reign. Full title: Bard of Ealdormere. 2) (n.) Any musical performer, usually with a reasonable amount of skill.

Ealdormere (Principality of): (n. proper; pron. EL-dor-meer) SCA region corresponding to most of the Canadian Province of Ontario.

Event: (n.) A social gathering held on a Saturday (or full weekend for camping), where all attendees are expected to wear garb. Events are hosted by local groups, and common activities include combat tournaments, formal and informal entertainment, and a feast. Can have several dozen to several hundred participants.

Garb: (n.) A "reasonable attempt" at pre-17th century costume. Authenticity is not strictly required.

Lord/Lady: 1) (n.) Formal title of recognition bestowed by Royalty. (i.e. Lord X., Lady Y.) 2) (n.) Polite form of address for a member of the SCA. (i.e. pardon me, milady)

Mundane: (adj.) Non-SCA or non-Period. (n.) A person or thing which is of the modern world. Note that this is not considered derogatory.

Period: (adj. or n.) In theory, the time between 600AD and 1600AD, or something from that era. In practice, it is from the beginning of the post-Classical world (i.e. not Greek or High Roman) to about 1650AD.

Persona: (n.) A character created and played by an SCA member within the context of the Society. Personae serve as a focus for historical research and re-creation by narrowing the relevant information down to a single lifespan.

Principality Royalty: (n.) The winners of a specific tournament, who are given the titles Prince and Princess. Usually only one of the couple has fought in the tourney, but both rule as equals. They give out awards of merit during their reign (i.e. approx. six months).

SCA: (n.) Society for Creative Anachronism. A worldwide organization for the creative re-creation of Dark Ages, Medieval and Renaissance cultures.

Tournament: (n.) A martial contest between armoured fighters who are trained in medieval combat styles. Simulated weaponry made of rattan is used for safety reasons.


Explanations of SCA Content for songs from the "Light of the North" tape (by Heather Dale / Lady Marian of Heatherdale)


Each August, nearly 10 000 SCA members travel to a campsite in Pennsylvania to participate in a two-week medieval land war and outdoor camping experience known as the Pennsic War. The Principalities of Ealdormere and AEthelmearc have traditionally had friendly diplomatic ties, but usually fight on opposite sides of the War; Ealdormere with the Middle Kingdom and AEthelmearc with the rival East Kingdom. In order to make the sides more equal at the 1996 Pennsic War, Ealdormere fought for the East Kingdom, and this song commemorates the friendship between the two Principalities.


As in the High Middle Ages, SCA fighters compete in tournaments to win honour and prestige. Ideally, they do not fight for their own glory, but rather they carry a token from a person of the opposite sex who inspires them and all victories are due to that inspiration. This song addresses this ideal in a general fashion which suits both the High Middle Ages and the SCA.


This song is an example of praise-singing. The Princess of Ealdormere rules equally with the Prince, regardless of which one of them won the special tournament which gave them that rank.


Many of Ealdormere’s songs are war songs dedicated to the leadership that the Prince (or Princess, whichever won the tournament) displays during the Pennsic War. Some of the heraldic symbols of Ealdormere are the trillium flower and the colour red.


These pieces are intended to accompany dances which have either been reconstructed from period dance manuals or have been written expressly for the SCA. They are not Lady Marian’s original compositions, only arrangements of specific pieces. The many different SCA dance forms are reflected in the variety of these selections.

Copyright 1996, Heather Dale. All rights reserved.